During my co-teaching assignment in 2014-15, New Age Beliefs and Practises, when stuck for a seminar topic for the first week’s class, given the lack of a set reading, my senior colleague simply went to his office and produced a stack of primary texts on the New Age from the 1940s to 1990s. These he distributed among the students, asking them to try and find examples of the typical New Age elements as presented during the lecture – millennialism, Eastern religions, UFOs, “energy” and so on.
With a bit of coaxing, this worked surprisingly well. What interested me about this activity was that the students were given the data cold, and asked to interpret using what we had learned in the class. Also, it gave them the original material in their hands – unlike most classes on religion, I could actually give them a copy of the original document and ask them to leaf through it. This neatly makes the point that religion – whatever it might be – is both something mundane, and something which is continuing to happen in the modern world.
Inspired by this, I tried a different version of the same technique in my adult education course, Alternative Religions, in 2015. Rather than a book, in the session where we focussed on prophecy, I gave each student an anonymised channelled text and asked them to speculate on where and when it came from. Roughly half of the texts were “UFO” texts from the post-War period, ranging from George Adamski’s messages in the 1950s to Bashar’s in the 2000s, and the remainder were made up of more conventionally religious channelled texts ranging from the Old Testament prophets, to Aleister Crowley’s 1904 Book of the Law, to modern revivalist Christian preachers.
This exercise had two benefits. Firstly, it was quite simply fun. I deliberately “gamified” it: they were a small group, but chatty and enthusiastic, so when some – pleasingly – got it right, there was as much fun as when someone did not. In essence, they forgot they were learning. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that competition improves student’s retention of information (Worm & Buch 2014).
Secondly, without foreknowledge of which was modern and which was not, which was Christian and which was not, the students found it hard to tell the difference. Therefore they realised that the assumed self-evident difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” religious formations was proven to be fallacious – at least in terms of their texts and the teachings they contain. UFO Contactees in the 1980s, ceremonial magicians in the 1900s and revivalist preachers all used a common language drawn from the Bible, even though they are typically considered to antithetical to Christianity. In other words, when preconceptions were removed, the data proved to have a lot more similarity than difference, and again the point is made that without preconceptions, the difference between mainstream and alternative religions mostly comes down to expectation. And crucially, the group – apparently – discovered these facts for themselves.
From a disciplinary perspective, this is of crucial importance to me. For Religious Studies as a discipline to earn its place at the academic table, it has to do more than legitimising certain discourses at the expense of others (McCutcheon 1997). A fine ideal, but one which is often made more complicated by the concerns which drive people into the field in the first place. You cannot make a student – almost certainly raised in an implicitly or explicitly religiously normative culture – comprehend these issues simply by telling them, but you can lead them to realise it for themselves.
This exercise makes that point succinctly, and in a non-confrontational way. I can give a student a piece of religion happening right now (or at least, within memory), where they have as much context as I do. At the same time, I can challenge the perceived need to separate real religion from popular narratives, and at the same time expose the power plays of those who deem it necessary. It is a simple and enjoyable exercise, but when successful it leads students to see profound issues at the heart of the discipline. This makes it a very powerful strategy for the classroom.
McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford University Press
Worm, Bjarne S. and Buch, Steen V. 2014. “Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial”. PLoS One, 9(1).